Lest we had any hope that new-fangled crab pots or some innovation might help the industry start the season earlier this year, state wildlife officials announced Friday that our local Dungeness crab season will be delayed, yet again.
And the reason, once again, is migrating humpback whales which have, historically, gotten entangled in crab-fishing gear.
"Large aggregations of humpback whales continue to forage between Bodega Bay and Monterey and allowing the use of crab traps would increase the risk of an entanglement in those fishing zones,” says California Department of Fish and Wildlife director Charlton H. Bonham in a statement issued today.
The statement explains that while the commercial crab season will be delayed at least two weeks, from the scheduled start of November 15th to December 1st, sport crab fishing will be allowed to begin statewide starting November 4th.
For recreational or sport fishing, only hoop nets and crab snares may be used for catching crabs — sport fishers can use traditional crab pots when the commercial season is allowed to begin. But recreational fishermen should not behave like poachers who have been swooping in on Half Moon Bay in recent weeks, taking female crabs near the shoreline. Egg-laying female crabs should be thrown back at this time of year in order to preserve the health of the crab population.
Bonham said that the situation vis a vis the whales will be reassessed on November 17th.
Unfortunately, if last year is any example, we shouldn't hold out hope that Dungeness season will start in time for Christmas. Last year, concerns about humpback whales lingered on, and the season was delayed until New Year's Eve.
We learned last year that two local fisherman had invented a new kind of crab pot, one with a rope that gets bundled up on top of the crab pot on the ocean floor, and only pops to the surface with its buoy when triggered by a timer or other device. Such pots, if put into widespread use, would avoid the issue of whale entanglements, however it seems like it may take some time for the invention to catch on — and it would obviously entail some additional expense for fishermen.
The regional delay in crab season began in 2019, following litigation by the Phoenix-based Center for Biological Diversity. Following a couple of years of record numbers of whale entanglements in fishing gear, the group sued the state in 2018, arguing that climate change was pushing the whales migration paths closer to shore, and closer to crab pots.
There were 62 whale entanglements in 2015 and 71 the following year, up from an average of 10 per year between 2000 and 2013. Those entanglements often lead to major injuries and sometimes death for the whales when ropes become embedded in their blubber — and larger species, like blue whales, can actually be impossible for humans to disentangle.
But delays of just seven or 14 days in the crab season have now extended to six weeks in the case of last year, which greatly impacts the income of commercial fishermen.
What was a $68 million industry in 2018 has been reduced to just over $50 million as of this past season. California fishermen took in 8,899 metric tons of crab worth $50.5 million as of early April this year, and the season was shut down after three and a half months, on April 15.
Photo: Alvin Matthews